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Judaism’s Ancient Jubilee May Be An Antidote to Neoliberal Inequality (Martin Katchen)

Recent years have seen an upsurge of interest in evangelical Christian circles in what is usually seen as a completely archaic and long obsolete area of Jewish Law known as Shemittah (Sabbatical Year) and Yovel (Jubilee).

The speculation centers around the idea that business cycles run seven years and that when Sabbaticals are not observed, God imposes them on mankind anyway, as exemplified in the popular writings of figures such as Jonathan Cahn.  The concept of the Sabbatical Year (which Jews see as obligatory only for Jews living in the Land of Israel) is that the Sabbatical Year is a time in which cultivation of land owned by Jews ceases (which in today’s practice in Israel results in pro-forma sales of land to Gentiles so that cultivation can continue).

In a Jubilee – the year after a seventh sabbatical year, or every half century, this cessation of economic activity (passive economic gain is permitted – extends to a 50th year in which land that has been leased to other “owners”reverts to individual owners who renegotiate those leases.  Sale for fee simple is prohibited.  It is from this process that land “sales” in Israel are 50 year leases from the Jewish Agency and have been since acquisition in British Mandate and even Ottoman times.  although not in any particular year.

What is most relevant to us is that in the seventh year debts are supposed to be excused.

Of course, the effect of the Sabbatical year, multiplied by the effects of a Jubilee, amounted to a tightening of credit from the first year after a Sabbatical Year to the sixth year, something that Jews increasingly found unworkable and therefore something to be worked around. The Jubilee was rationalized by the returnees from Babylonia as inapplicable unless Jews occupied the whole of the Land of Israel, which included what we now call Jordan and the Syrian Jabal al Druz and which were alienated from the First Commonwealth long before the Destruction of Israel and Judah.

The Sabbatical Year was worked around during the time of Rabbi Hillel, which is to say in the latter Hasmonean Period in the reigns of either John Hyrcanus or Aristobulus. The Prosbul amounted to the declaration of the debt in open court with the court assuming the assignation of the debt, much as one would assign an obligation to a comtemporary collection agency. So assigned, the debt would not be invalidated by the Sabbatical Year.

The timing of the institution of the Prosbul is significant. The latter Second Commonwealth was a time in which Israel was emerging from the isolation of the Maccabean Period and taking it’s place commercially in the neo-Classical world. If the observance of the Sabbatical Year was feasible in the context of an isolated Judea, it was much less so when Judea became increasingly integrated into the international commerce of the Mediterranean and Near East.

The price paid for this integration was the upsurge in inequality that the Sabbatical Year and Jubilee arguably was supposed to prevent. It was an integration into – and corruption by – a highly ruthless commercial society exemplified by the Roman Empire in which everything was negotiable in payment of debt, even life and liberty. Many Roman slaves were slaves because of debt or destitution of themselves or their fathers.

It was this extreme inequality that Jesus railed and demonstrated against when he turned over the money-changers tables in the Temple, amounting to an early day Occupy demonstration. Extreme inequality also created the conditions that fostered the growth of Zealot terrorists who finally were able to create a covert operation that caused the Romans to destroy the Temple. If one interprets the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (most likely a Saducee father with a Zealot son), the context becomes much clearer.

All of this resonates with our understanding of today’s economy. Karl Marx was not wrong when he showed that left to itself, wealth and capital accumulate into fewer and fewer hands. Nikolai Kondriatev and Joseph Schumpeter, however, saw capitalism avoiding Marxian implosion by regenerating itself according to 40-60 year cycles in which new forms of technology replace older, more mature technologies.

Taken this way seven year business cycles, which have come to have been seen as a necessary evil that damps down inflationary pressures (a Sabbatical cycle!), and even longer Kondriatieff “winter depressions” may be seen as historical necessities to be planned for in the form of social safety nets for all citizens rather than something to be avoided at all costs by bail-outs for the rich (the equivalent of a prozbul). It is Great Depressions that are the time when new businesses are formed using the next wave of innovations that grow and prosper in the next Spring and Summer parts of the Kondriateieff Cycle,if older, larger concentrations of capital are allowed to fail and redistribution of wealth permitted to occur.

It is when older concentrations of capital and inequality of relationships are protected by the State that mummification of older technology occurs and inequality becomes institutionalized and written into law and innovation starts to be stifled. In this regard, the Obama Administration’s bailout of the Big Banks may have cemented inequality by denying Americans the depression it needed to have to correct inequality.

Policies that protect existing players, whether they are called CEOs in neoliberal nations or plant managers or party bosses in socialist countries, stifle innovation. That is why the Soviet Union became as economically sclerotic as it did.

These sorts of policy are thus only viable in the context of an Imperium, a declared or undeclared Empire that is effectively it’s own universe. Perhaps this is the attraction that neoliberals have for an effective, new kind of (Roman) imperium enforced through free trade agreements and ultimately at the threat of American weaponry and drones.

Rome, as well as Imperial China, were able to create their own self-enclosed universes that lasted hundreds of years with neither the inclination nor the need to innovate technologically by at least for a time, eliminating competition.  Their stability came at the expense of legally cemented inequality.

If this is what neoliberals are striving for, maybe a Jubilee redistribution of wealth will ultimately benefit more people.

Martin Katchen is an independent scholar, teacher, and researcher living in California.  He specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, particularly the state of Israel.  He holds a PhD from the University of Sydney (Australia).

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